The UK is built on pockets of emerging industry; jobs are created, house prices increase, the local economy grows. This in turn encourages talent to relocate and new opportunities to arise in an area, and so growth and investment becomes possible. The discussion around Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) is still evolving, particularly in the context of logistics and infrastructure across different regions – but could MMC be a catalyst for this kind of growth and change?
It is important to properly understand and explore the different kinds of MMC, as MMC is much more than modular housebuilding. It is right that the MMC conversation includes logistics, but this discussion needs to be more than considering the transportation of large building sections. Key to the success of MMC is a new workforce with a wide variety of skills based as much around technology as traditional construction skills. Achieving that will require new training curricula and academies with innovation hubs to ensure continual improvement. Growing MMC therefore becomes less about location and more about the capability and the benefits to regions across the UK.
During the early stages of a wider MMC roll out, it is possible that there will initially be some regional inequality – for example, to start with there could be pockets of early MMC success in concentrated geographic areas, especially as volume house builders make their first moves - and this is something we will need to get comfortable with. But as a new technology or manufacturing process becomes more mature, it is inevitable that it will become mainstream creating opportunities elsewhere across the UK.
As with the transport of all goods, the success of some types of MMC (such as volumetric construction, pods, or panelised systems) would seem to be predetermined by what our road network and existing infrastructure can support. When factoring in the transportation of large sections of homes, there will be parts of the UK where using large MMC factories would, at first, seem to make less logistical sense. However, Stephen Wightman, UK MMC Lead at Faithful+Gould dispels some of those misgivings about transportation costs and logistics ‘cancelling out’ the carbon-cutting benefits of MMC.
“The major factor in business infrastructure costs is the fixed overhead, not the transportation costs. For example, there's a vast difference in the cost of a factory set-up in Yorkshire versus one in Slough, which could cost five times as much. The reality is, if you look at successful MMC manufacturers, their manufacturing bases are in locations where land is cheaper, there is ample space, and they’ve got the ability to have a low overhead infrastructure. For me, that’s far more important than the logistics issues. Again, taking the situation with a Category 1 (volumetric or modular) system, the total transport volume of all things associated with that product, building it in any factory anywhere in the UK and delivering it to site, can reduce the site transport requirements by 70% – there are 70% fewer vehicle movements associated with that transportation. While it’s one really big transport effort, you only do it once.
“Conversely, when considering traditional construction and the travel and logistics associated with travelling from one site to another – for example, a plumber who might travel to a site for 5 days on an 80km round trip at 150g of CO2 per km for their vehicle, that’s effectively 12 kilos of CO2 every day for every single plumber that’s travelled to site. Multiply that by the bricklayers, joiners, labourers, plasterers, decorators. By comparison someone working in a regular factory job is likely to live locally to that facility and also have better access to public transport or car sharing for their journey to work. Add to that unpredictable weather days halting progress and adding on further time to the project – something that wouldn’t be a consideration in a climate-controlled factory – your carbon emissions are significantly higher and that is only considering the human logistics of a given project. The potential carbon savings of manufacturing a fairly simple building in a factory, as opposed to delivering the traditional construction process to site, can be several tons or even tens of tons of CO2.”
Therefore, the initial outlays of factory set up should be considered alongside and balanced against future carbon saving benefits, as well as the potential to inject a skills need into a region. Once a factory is set up that region can work to develop a pipeline of talent, and that talent can remain in that local area without needing to travel across the country to put those skills to use. With this in mind, developers could decide to set up a factory in an area where land is cheap and their investment would be welcome because it brings with it the opportunity for regeneration, job opportunities and investment.
MMC is all about innovation and creating new methods to make efficiencies across construction. While there are likely to be a limited number of larger manufacturing factories situated across the UK, this is likely to be supplemented by complementary, smaller, innovative companies that are pieces of the jigsaw of a complete MMC project. It is within this part of the supply chain that MMC will provide opportunities at a national level; innovation that can take place anywhere and which is not limited by location, square footage or specific transport links. This will be especially important when considering the logistical challenges posed by certain geographical areas, such as central London and parts of Scotland.
“While there are constraints in the UK’s road infrastructure, it doesn’t matter whether you travel a mile or 1000 miles, the constraints are generally the same. With remote building you’re actually facilitating the building of things in remote locations in a far easier and more deliverable manner by not building in situ – it's the choice between moving all of the construction workers, or just moving the product.”
“We have seen for many years MMC bringing value to education and healthcare by building to scale to meet demand. MMC brings low levels of community disruption and high levels of predictability. We have a situation in the UK where we have a dislocation of need – the need to build housing and the need to create jobs that deliver that housing. The UK has an industrial heartland in the Midlands and the North, so jobs are needed there, and in the South East we need housing where there are huge housing issues. If you can move the house and not the people and skills, we should be in a better position to solve the housing crisis.
“The challenge comes when councils need to build houses but MMC production is in a different area in the UK – why do they want to put money into another area? Where some areas need houses but don’t need traditional skilled jobs, alternative incentives or a “levelling up credit” may need to be considered to give more encouragement for offsite and external investment in housing factories away from that area.”
Another logistical challenge of MMC that needs to be considered, and which is also relevant to its traditional construction counterpart, is weather. For example, wind speed can have a significant impact on modular construction (once out of the factory), project delivery and safety. Despite this, many of the ‘weather days’ that impact a traditional on-site construction project are mitigated when it comes to MMC because of the controlled environment in which many factories operate. Weather can often be a point of contention in contractual agreements, for both MMC and traditional housebuilding. Therefore, further consideration will be needed as to what constitutes bad weather for an MMC project, how an MMC project differs from traditional construction methods, and whether specific contract clauses are required to address these differences. If the project is being delivered through a mix of traditional building methods as well as MMC elements, it may also be necessary to highlight in the contract what weather terms apply to which part of the works. There will be a number of areas in the UK where the harsh weather conditions may render the use of some MMC methods unsuitable and so this may influence the choice of locations where MMC is used.
It is important to recognise instances of these regional differences to ensure that a drive towards MMC is not creating a group of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ but is instead supporting different iterations of innovation based on local need, demand, and a common-sense approach to logistics that accounts for the carbon saving benefits of MMC.